Kyoto has a plenty of sightseeing spots. It is rare to see so many valuable places gathered in one city.
In fact, there are 17 World Heritage Sites in and around Kyoto. However, there are interesting and unique spots around Kyoto as well. Although Kyoto is probably your focus, side trips to the nearby cities can be fun.
Especially, the following four spots are highly recommended.
Osaka is located next to Kyoto, but they have totally different cultures. The people and food are also different. It is one of the biggest cities in Japan and an economical center of west Japan. Thus it has many skyscrapers like Tokyo, big shopping malls, plenty of night life and Universal Studio Japan. In addition, there are a few spots where a foreign tourist can feel “good old” Japan such as Osaka Castle. (30 – 40 mins train ride from Kyoto)
Nara has many landmarks including a gigantic Buddha statue. This statue is something that every tourist should see. Nara has 8 World Heritage Sites; Heijokyo remains, Todaiji Temple (Buddha Statue), Kofukuji Temple, Toshodaiji Temple, Kasuga Taisha Shrine, Yakushiji Temple, Gangoji Temple and Mt. Kasuga Primeval Forest. Most of these sites are very near each other and can be seen in a single day. The most famous and popular “mascot” in Nara though are deer wandering around Nara Park, Kasuga Taisha Shrine and Mt. Kasuga. Feeding Shika Senbei (deer cookies) to them is fun (but can be scary for kids). (1 hour train ride from Kyoto (36 mins for express))
Kobe is regarded as one of the most fashionable and fanciest towns in Japan, and Kobe is a symbol of restoration (Kobe was damaged significantly by a big earthquake in 1995). While Kobe is famous for having a good old European atmosphere, it also has one of the biggest China Towns. Talking about food, Kobe Beef can’t be ignored. It is slightly further away from Kyoto compared to Osaka and Nara. (1 hour train ride from Kyoto (30 mins for Shinkansen))
This place is even further, nevertheless it deserves to be listed. If you prefer traditional Japan to modern Japan, Kanazawa is worth visiting. Kenrokuen Garden is one of the largest and most beautiful gardens in Japan. Kanazawa has many interesting spots to view, and because it is relatively small, it is possible to see all of them in one/two days. In addition, for people who are serious about Sushi, Kanazawa is the best among these places including Kyoto. Kanazawa is not popular compared to the other cities above, but it might actually be nicer. However since it takes 2 hours and 30 mins by an express train, it is advised to stay a night there.
Note that my Kanazawa e-Guidebook is in the process of production. Nara will be the next.